Introducing iPhone masochism: Soon everything you own will judge you

June 9, 2014, 6:56 PM UTC
Nacoki—Getty Images/Flickr RF

Fitness trackers–the Bluetooth-enabled bracelets and wearable devices that monitor things like a person’s heart rate, steps taken and calories burned–had a moment last year. Then everyone realized that knowing how many steps they’d taken each day wasn’t all that helpful. What do you do with that information? Reports surfaced that half of fitness tracking devices had become inactive; industry experts suggest that number is closer to 85%.

The fitness tracker moment has passed. The next wave of connected devices is taking a different approach: Instead of incentivizing users to exercise or sleep or eat healthy, and rewarding them for it with virtual badges and digital high-fives, this new class of devices use shame, guilt, and in one case, a physical shock, to keep their owners in line.

Where first-generation fitness trackers offered the carrot, the latest class is offering the stick. Soon everything you own, from your chair, to your lighter, to your fork or belt, will be able to scold you.

Take Quitbit. It’s a “smart lighter,” which measures how much its owner smokes, in hopes that that information will motivate them to cut back on the habit. Its designers created the device after they tried to track their own smoking with Google Docs and iPhone notes. They realized they weren’t always proud of how much they smoked, and therefore weren’t motivated to continue recording the behavior. So they built a lighter that records the data for them. In addition to tracking the data, which founders Takuji Nakano and Ata Ghofrani say is proven to help smokers decrease their smoking, Quitbit can be programmed to only work a certain number of times each day. They’re careful not to push the guilt factor, since it takes time for smokers to come around to the idea of quitting. “We have to be really gentle with it and will continually ease them into it by making them more cognitive about how much they’re smoking,” Nakano says. “We want to empower them to just try to quit.” The Quitbit crossed its funding goal on Kickstarter and will be available for purchase later this year.

For drinkers, there are a myriad of iPhone breathalyzer tools that not only tell users how intoxicated they are and how long until they’ll be sober, but map out alcohol intake over time in a handy chart. The quantified drinker can choose from breathalyzer devices from BACTrack (which I reviewed last year), Breathometer, or Alcohoot.

For speed-eaters, there’s Hapifork, an electronic fork that vibrates when its user eats too fast. The idea is that eating more slowly helps users consume less food, chewing more frequently to aid digestion and decrease gastric reflux. Naturally, there’s an app to go with it, tracking one’s eating speeds over time.

For fixing bad posture, there’s the LumoBack, a connected belt that vibrates any time its wearer slouches. A sensor can be set to pulse until the wearer has adjusted into a “good posture.” A related smartphone app allows users to “watch” their posture, assigning a score for how straight one is sitting or standing. In addition, the LumoBack tracks time spent standing, sitting, and sleeping.

For those uncomfortable wearing a vibrating belt, there’s Darma, the “smart cushion.” This device offers vibrating reminders to stand up (sitting kills, remember?) and to alert users to correct their bad posture. The company touts the cushion’s non-intrusiveness, since it is not stuck on your body.

But the most punishing device, not yet available in the market, is the Pavlok, its name a nod to the father of classical conditioning research. Pavlok was created by Maneesh Sethi, a blogger who became Internet-famous when he hired a woman to slap him every time he mindlessly opened Facebook.  The Pavlok bracelet, which has been beta testing several hundred users, grew out of that experiment. (The company will launch a crowdfunding campaign later this year, Sethi says.)

Users can program the bracelet to change a variety of habits, from opening fewer tabs in their web browser, to meditating every day. Pavlok users assign themselves a goal and choose a “referee,” who gets a text message to check in every day at 7 p.m. If the user hasn’t completed their goal, they get a shock through the bracelet and charged money through the app. If they complete their goal, they get rewards like lottery tickets or money. Sethi says the bracelet starts with punishment for bad behavior, and moves to positive feedback for good behavior over time. “The negative gets you started and the positive keeps the habit going,” he says. “As you start to succeed, you can take away the negative reinforcement and give positive reinforcement. And then the habit comes more automatic and you don’t need it at all.”

This wave of punishing devices may end up with same high abandonment rates as fitness trackers. But in the case of breaking bad habits, abandonment doesn’t mean failure–it could mean users have successfully broken their bad habits and no longer need a device to judge them.